A huge bulge of shingle sticking out into the English Channel; a place dominated by waves – the waves of the sea, the waves of the shingle banks, the waves of migrating birds that flow in and out of the RSPB reserve here. The new year awoke to a light frost, with pools of mist collected in every hollow and valley – the first day this winter that belonged to the season. At Dungeness though the wind had eroded any mist; a cold south-easterly that numbed the skull. The many flooded gravel pits that cover this reserve were swarmed with waterfowl of all kinds, along with a few other treasures – by the end John and I had racked up 50 species, including a first.
Goldcrest – the first bird we saw as we stepped out of the car, it was twittering its high-pitched cyclical song in dense shrubs as it searched tirelessly for food. Just next to it were some feeders, at that moment with Chaffinches and Greenfinches scoffing the seed while Moorhens cleaned up the spilt scraps below.
Gadwall – a small, dainty, subdued but nonetheless attractively plumaged duck which was in quite good numbers throughout the reserve. A pair passed very close to the first hide we went in giving us excellent views. Other ducks with pretty plumage we saw from the same hide included the hunched, broad-billed, battleship-like forms of Shovelers, also in large numbers. Goldeneye are ducks from the far north with truly exceptional plumage in both males and females – about 5 were on view at this pool.
Smew – another far-north breeding species which is scarce in the UK, we saw several females with their distinctive stubby bills and burgundy coloured heads right at the back of the pool. It was a few hides further on before we managed to see the male of the species – a jaw-dropper with pure white plumage marked delicately with black.
Long-eared Owl – this impressive bird of prey was roosting in bushes behind the pond just outside the visitor centre. It was big, with gorgeously marked plumage, two ragged ear-tufts that give it its name, large talons and totally asleep. This was a lifer for me, and a particular satisfying one considering how difficult this species is to see – a highly secretive nocturnal bird that is cryptically camouflaged.
Marsh Harrier – A golden-headed female harrier flapped past us against the wind, back-dropped by picturesque pilons. We saw another three fine looking Marshes, including a dusky brown 1st-winter male gliding low over a lake of gulls that weren’t too happy about it.
Great Egret – great sail-like wings, great long black legs, a great orange bill and white all over, this is a nice bird that is reliable at Dungeness but rare elsewhere. At the same location a large flock of dumpy Wigeon were grazing at the feet of a large flock of Greylag and Canada geese – amongst which hid an Egyptian goose looking like he would rather be in Egypt.
Tree Sparrow – These are quite scarce birds these days and difficult to come across accidentally, which is why we saw one at a well known location at the entrance to the reserve. I love their bright chestnut coloured heads and it is sad to think that it is likely to be the only one of its species I see all year.
Gannet – A short but freezing stop on the beach behind the nuclear power station to look at the roughened sea yielded about ten passing Gannets. These are vast birds, built solely for a life gliding over the oceans, their two-metre wings dwarf every gull and their solid ivory bills must be the nightmare of every fish. Also braving the open coast were a few lovely Kittiwakes, everyone’s favourite gull species; with their cute faces, delicate colours and that distinctive solid black spot on the tip of the wing.
Peregrines – the last notable bird of the day was, suitably, one of the earth’s most impressive. One dashed over us and out to sea before we could get a good look, but then returned inland joined by another. They swooped with the breeze just overhead, then hung menacingly in the wind over the power-station; choosing a feral pigeon from the flock like teenagers choosing a kebab.
A brilliant start to 2016, I look forward to another year writing about wildlife on this blog, thanks very much to all my subscribers (currently 111) for your interest in the past year – I hope you all have a good one.